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Working snowbirds find fans in Mexico

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Published:

Story by Julie Rossman

Jill Jensen and Jack Grassel are a jazz duo who perform year-round, even as they winter for six weeks each year in Mexico. Jill is a singer, Jack a guitarist. How they came to find work, while taking a break from the Wisconsin winter, is part of a love story.

Before they were working snowbirds, Jack and Jill were lovebirds who first traveled to Cancun on their honeymoon 12 years ago.

“We didn’t really like it,” Jack said of Cancun.

A day trip took them on a boat ride to a small island called Isla Mujeres. They loved it, and soon decided they would go back there to vacation every year.

The friendly little island is home to 4,000 people. It measures just one-half mile wide by six miles long. Jill describes it as a very “international” island, with residents and regular visitors who come from all over the world.

The island is also home to a large contingent of musicians who live and perform there. Jack and Jill got to know some of these musicians and sat in with them during performances at local restaurants and bars. One thing led to another, and soon they had their own “gigs” at these local establishments.

After hearing Jensen and Grassel perform with another group, one business owner asked them for a CD, and subsequently offered them a job at his restaurant, something that worried Jensen.

She explained to the man that she and her husband didn’t want to take jobs away from local musicians. “He kind of laughed and said, ‘Are you kidding? There’s no competition, you are the only American jazz band.’”

“The fact that we have a blonde singer is highly unusual,” Grassel said.

So they took the job, which soon led to another, and another. Year after year, the couple added another week to the trip, which is now six weeks long. They are now booked five nights a week for the entire six weeks — mostly at outside venues. Jensen said they may extend their stay in the future, as they currently are turning down work in Mexico.

“The weather is the same every day — it’s so nice,” Jack said.

An added bonus is that the work makes the annual trip to the place they love more affordable. Each year they stay at the same cabin.

“The Caribbean Sea is right in front of the house — it’s a wonderful existence,” Jensen said.

The main mode of transportation on the island is golf cart, however hitchhiking is also the norm. Since their rental is located several miles outside of town, the couple hitchhikes to get to their performances each night.

According to Jensen, the island is very safe. “We travel with people from every country in the world!” she said.

The couple recalled one of their best moments on the island, when they had to hail a taxi. When the driver saw the couple, he said “I remember you,” said Jack. Then, when they got in the car, their CD was playing.

“It was just adorable — it warms my heart,” Jensen said.

Jack and Jill Jazz, as the duo is known, performs all different types of music to a diverse audience. “Because the island is so international, we perform anything from rock to pop, Latin and blues,” Jensen said.

Jensen and Grassel leave the Wisconsin winter behind in late December and return by Valentine’s Day. “Just in time to shovel snow,” Grassel said.

He explained how January is a slow month for work in southeastern Wisconsin. “People don’t want to go out much in January,” he said.

By Valentine’s Day, they start to get more jobs here, as people go out to celebrate the holiday. In Racine, they regularly play at Yardarm Bar & Grill. They also play at venues in Milwaukee and say they would love to branch out more to venues farther south and west of Racine. They play at private events and homes, concerts and corporate events.

“It’s wonderful to be diverse,” Jensen said.

Before they got married each had separate careers. Jensen is a professional actress and singer who always worked in the talent industry. In the past, she worked as television spokesperson for Schaefer Pontiac. Grassel is an award-winning guitarist, educator, composer and producer and author. He’s always been with a band; he has recorded 18 CDs over his career, four with Jensen.

He never played with singers before, until he met Jill. When they first met, they didn’t want to work with each other for fear of interrupting each other’s careers. It seems Jensen needed some coaxing to sing full time with him.

“At one point, I told her, ‘why don’t you quit your job and be a singer?’” he said.

“So I did!” she replied.

“Since Jill and I got together — it’s better with the two of us,” Grassel said.

“I would never have dreamed this big,” Jensen said. “To have met Jack — it’s just wonderful,” she added.

Both age 65, neither has any interest in retirement or slowing down.

Grassel has always had a career in music. When he was young, he knew he wanted to do this work as long as he could.

“I had foresight in my 20s, to take good care of myself. I’m very healthy now, so I see no reason to stop working, because I love it,” he said.

Jensen just enjoys sharing common interests with Jack, especially their music.

“We have music — the universal language,” Jill said. “We communicate with people all over the world. Music breaks down all barriers, it opens all sorts of doors and opportunities.”

Jack and Jill Jazz

Upcoming southeastern Wisconsin performances

Friday, Feb. 14, 8:30 p.m.-12:30 a.m. 88 Keys Piano Martini Lounge 7211 W. Greenfield Ave, West Allis 414-257-9490

Saturday, March 29, 6:30 p.m-10:30 p.m. The Packing House Restaurant, 900 E. Layton Ave., Milwaukee, 414-483-5054

Saturday, April 5, 7:30 p.m.-11:30p.m. The Summit Restaurant Everest Lounge, 6825 Washington Ave. Racine. 262-886-9866.

For more information: www.jackandjilljazz.com